History – The Lancastria

In the years immediately before the War, Lancastria was primarily engaged in cruising, the last cruises being from New York to the Bahamas.

On the outbreak of war in September 1939, Lancastria returned to New York, where she was painted grey. She then sailed back to London where, in October, she was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport and became ‘His Majesty’s Transport Lancastria’ – hence the HMT.

After that she continued making transatlantic voyages, mainly taking passengers westbound and bringing cargo and war materials on her eastbound passages.

In May 1940 Lancastria was involved in trooping for the Norwegian campaign; (Norway and Denmark had been invaded by Germany in April 1940). At the end of the month she went to Harstad, near Narvik to assist in the evacuation. On the return trip, carrying about 2600 troops, the small convoy she was in was attacked by high-flying German bombers. Two bombs fell close to Lancastria but no damage was done.

She returned to the Clyde, via Scapa Flow, before sailing on to Liverpool, where she arrived on 13th of June in readiness for much-needed dry-docking and repairs (including the removal of 1400 tons of surplus oil fuel). Those of the crew not required for essential duties were released on leave.

After lunch that day Chief Officer Grattidge (later ‘Captain of the Queens’), who was required to stay with the ship for the initial stages of dry-docking, went to the Cunard office, where he was told that he had to recall the crew because the ship had to sail at midnight that night. Remarkably, all but three of the crew of 322 returned to the ship that day.

Lancastria sailed first to Plymouth, then, in company with another Cunard ship, Franconia sailed to Brest where they were ordered to proceed to Quiberon Bay as part of ‘Operation Aerial’ which was the British codename for the evacuation of the remainder of the British Expeditionary Forces from the ports of north-west France. As they approached their destination the Franconia was attacked by a single Ju88 bomber. The near misses severely damaged the Franconia which then returned to Liverpool. Later that day Lancastria was ordered to Charpentier Roads, near St Nazaire, where she arrived early in the morning of the 17th of June.
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The signal ‘Operation Dynamo now completed’ which was circulated on the 4th of June, indicated the end of the evacuation at Dunkirk, but by no means implied that all of the B E F troops had returned from France, indeed, with the French capitulation on the 12th and capture of the 51st Highland Division on the 13th of June, there were still exceedingly large numbers of troops awaiting evacuation.

Winston Churchill had the idea that possibly the French Government would continue fighting. With that thought in mind, General Sir Alan Brooke was sent to France as head of the 2 B E F. The 52nd Lowland Division had been sent to France 7 – 12 June: 1 Canadian Division went 12 – 13 June and complimented the remnants of the 1 Armoured and Beauman’s Divisions.

By the 17th of June, of the 124,000 servicemen still in the war zone, 57,000 had been evacuated, leaving 67,000 who needed to be repatriated. The War Cabinet decided there would be a last attempt to evacuate via St Nazaire. On the 16th of June some 17,000 men embarked and left on four large passenger liners, Georgic, Duchess of York, and the Polish ships Batory and Sobiesky.
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June 17th

Lancastria lay at anchor in the Roads and was joined later by the Orient liner Oronsay. A number of destroyers, tugs, tenders, and other small craft made repeated trips out to Lancastria, ferrying soldiers, airmen, and civilians. There are no accurate figures for the numbers who came on board, the consensus is 6,000+.

At 1.48pm there was an air attack on Oronsay , which was about half a mile away, and one bomb struck her bridge, destroying her compass and all her navigating instruments. Fortunately, no one was killed.

After that, Lancastria expected an air attack at any time. The boats were turned out, ready for lowering.. A signal came from a nearby destroyer suggesting that if Lancastria was full to capacity she should get under way. However, the Navy were unable to provide an escort and Captain Sharp and Chief Officer Grattidge, concerned about the possibility of submarine attack, and not having charts for those waters, agreed that it would be better to wait and go in company with Oronsay.

At 3.43 pm the air-raid alarm was sounded. Lancastria was being attacked by Ju 88s of II Gruppe/KG 30. Four bombs hit Lancastria, The first bomb hit No. 2 hold, which held about 800 RAF personnel, and blocked the exit for those who were not killed by the blast. Another bomb burst in No. 3 hold, releasing about 300 tons of oil this could result in a running fire, the most difficult of blazes to control aboard a ship.. When the smoke drifted and parted Chief Officer Grattidge saw the mess of blood and oil and splintered woodwork that littered the deck and a furious core of water that came roaring from the bottom of the ship in No. 4 hold.

Many sources, including Captain Sharp, say that the fourth bomb went down the funnel, but surviving Engineer Officer Frank Brogden, who was on duty in the engine room, is adamant that this did not happen, because they would not have survived the blast.

Lancastria started sinking by the bow; she developed a list to starboard, but by ordering all hands to the port side, this was corrected, only for an uncontrollable list to port to develop; she rolled over onto her port side and at 4.12 pm she disappeared into the shallow waters of the Loire estuary.

In this summary it is not possible to describe the chaos that followed. The water was covered with oil from the ruptured tank; there were only 2000 lifejackets on board and many of those on board could not swim; German planes machine-gunned the survivors and used tracer bullets to try and ignite the oil; a soldier slashing the rope fall of a lifeboat with his army knife as the boat hung suspended – the boat swung slowly outwards and the struggling passengers were toppled into the water.

The accounts of the experiences of many of those who were there are recorded in several books and in the ‘Narratives’ section of the Members’ Pages.

After the air attack had subsided about 4.30 pm, many vessels – destroyers, tugs and smaller craft, both French and British – came to the rescue of survivors. The trawler HMS Cambridgeshire was first on the scene and was able to rescue between 800 and 900 survivors, all taken from the water, with the exception of the occupants of one boat. Most of these men were transferred to the freighter John Holt. The badly wounded were taken to St Nazaire for medical treatment.

Most of those rescued were taken to Plymouth, the destroyers HMS Beagle taking 600 and HMS Havelock taking 460; the cargo ship John Holt took 829; the tanker Cymbula took 252 and the liner Oronsay 1557. Lesser numbers were brought back in other ships which are commemorated in a panel in ‘Lancastria’s Church’, St Katharine Cree, in the City of London.